By Connor Lynch
As COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus out of China, sweeps across the world, Ontario farmers keep trucking and prepping for spring.
At Lindsay, however, seed dealer Joe Hickson was falling behind on gossip. For 25 years he’s gotten together with a cabal of old farmers to bitch and breakfast. “We’ve had to cancel the breakfast club,” he said. “That’s the biggest hit I’ve taken.”
It’s also been a pain in the neck finding parts. Just last month, he needed a $35 part. “Nothing major,” he said. But it took four phone calls to find someone “who was open and would meet us so we could pick up the pieces and get the machine going.”
Hickson has ordered bags from a Quebec company for the last 27 years. Even with COVID-19 putting the squeeze on business he got the bags. He just couldn’t get his company logo on them. There’s simply “no production crew to paint them.”
As of April 7 at 2 p.m., Canada had 17,063 cases and 345 deaths, and Ontario had 4,726 cases and 153 deaths. The United States had more cases than any other country: As of April 7, the U.S. had 384,276 cases and 12,141 deaths. The World Health Organization estimated COVID-19’s mortality rate at 3.4 per cent, but people over 70 and those with pre-existing respiratory conditions are considered particularly vulnerable. Protecting yourself means washing your hands regularly; staying at least two metres away from other people; staying at home as much as you can; and not touching your face (studies have found people touch their faces as often as 20 times an hour).
By mid-March meetings, farm shows and conferences were cancelled. Soon after, all gatherings were banned by the provinces. Churches and parks were closed. Schools were closed until at least May 4.
The province shut down non-essential businesses last month but spared essential services such as primary agriculture and the businesses that support it, including farmers’ markets.
Yet, farm country has seen its fair share of changes. Some dairy farmers were dumping milk last month as milk demand from schools and restaurants evaporated. The Dairy Farmers of Ontario notified producers that milk dumping would be rotated among producers and every producer will get paid a slightly lower payment to compensate for the reduction in milk supply.
Chicken Farmers of Ontario announced a temporary reduction in production on April 3 due to “a temporary decline in demand for fresh chicken.”
Maple syrup producers struggled with full tanks and empty parking lots and expect to lose 30 per cent of their gross revenue this year. Cattle auctions were postponed or cancelled. Sale barns stayed open but only let buyers in and kept them six feet apart. There were some good news as some farms saw online sales increase.
Kent County farmer Ken Dawson was on enforced isolation last month after just getting back from Portugal. It’s easy to isolate on a farm, he said. “I do feel sorry for the people living in apartments in town. That’s gotta be hell. I’m outside right now, in fact.”
Equipment dealers and farm suppliers locked their doors. Sometimes they leave orders outside. Dawson called ahead for parts, then drove to the dealer and what he wanted was on the ground, not a soul in sight.
At Podolinsky Equipment in Petrolia, doors and buildings were locked, staff were working reduced hours and they’d set up a drop box outside the building. They are doing service calls but are screening people over the phone. “Making sure they haven’t travelled, don’t have symptoms and haven’t been in contact with anyone feeling symptoms,” said operations manager Deanna Valiquette.
Many suppliers are overwhelmed with phone calls.
“COVID-19 has made a bunch more work for us,” said Steve Uher, of Uher’s Performance Feeds at Blenheim. “We’re trying to practice all the safety (measures) we can: Keeping our distance, taking orders over the phone and setting them outside. We can’t have animals go without feed, so we have to make it work.”
The outbreak has hit urban centres harder but rural Ontario has hardly been spared. Outbreaks at long-term care homes and retirement homes were particularly deadly, as the virus is far more lethal to elderly people. By April 3, an outbreak at Landmark Village in Lambton County had killed four people. The Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit reported an outbreak at Anson place had infected 11 residents by April 3 and two had died of COVID-19.
One of the biggest questions has been how long will all this last, and how bad will it all be once it’s said and done. Ontario projected anywhere from 3,000 to 15,000 could die over the next two years. There could be as many as 1,600 Ontarians dead by the end of April.
As the pandemic progressed last month, all levels of government across Canada starting announcing support programs (see story on page 5). One farmer called into the Farmers Forum office from Lambton County to vent. “Remember when the government said there was not enough money for crop farmers?” he said. “Remember when our prime minister told veterans there was not enough money for them? Well, there’s money for everyone now.”
For many farmers, it’s business as usual. It’s the social and non-farming activity that has changed. Sarnia crop farmer Dave Park said a normal weekend would see his schedule filled: Playdates for their kids, babysitters, dinner with friends. That’s gone. He used to swing by Tim Hortons in the morning for coffee. He makes his own these days. His hobby of raising beef cattle has come in handy. “I feel pretty happy I’ve got a freezer full of beef right now.” Among everything, however, there was a bit of optimism. With the warmer weather and drier land, he was hoping to get into the field for planting a bit early, maybe by the last week of April. “After last year’s delayed planting, every machine will be rolling when she’s fit.”
WESTERN ONTARIO: Suppliers lock doors, auction sales postponed as COVID-19 sweeps through Ontario
By Connor Lynch